Buffalo Skyway transformation

Buffalo, New York

Buffalo is a waterfront city with a deep history along the shores of Lake Erie. With more than half of the city's waterfront left vacant, the potential for revitalization is immense. Whole neighborhoods and commercial districts could be built with strong connections to downtown and the city's existing neighborhoods. To achieve this vision, Buffalo needs to lay down the proper foundation. Good development is tied to good infrastructure. The form of the streets can seal the fate of vast amounts of land.

Built in 1953, this 1.4-mile long, 110-foot tall limited-access bridge known locally as “The Skyway” begins at the Inner Harbor downtown, crosses the Buffalo River and touches down as Route 5 in the Outer Harbor. Route 5 continues for another 2.6 miles as a limited-access expressway built on an embankment of slag. The highway's oddly configured exit ramps lead to a confusing series of one-way streets that further hinder access to the waterfront. A total of 41,500 vehicles per day travel along this blighted corridor. There is no pedestrian access between downtown and the Outer Harbor.

Buffalo Skyway
Route 5/Buffalo Skyway today Source: Paul Buckley

Despite many resident pleas to remove the structure, the NYSDOT selected to retain the embanked Route 5 (and reinforce it with new ramps) instead of replacing it with a surface boulevard supporting an urban street-and-block network, even though a boulevard-only option was deemed viable in the project's Environmental Impact Statement.

Proposed Waterfront Vision by Moule & Polyzoides. Source: Zanetta Illustration

NYSDOT's current plan leaves aside the fate of the Skyway Bridge, but its decision to retain the embanked Route 5 will necessitate that the Skyway Bridge be replaced by a similar, high-speed expressway facility. Currently the DOT rates the Skyway bridge as “fracture critical” while the Federal Highway Administration classifies the bridge as “functionally obsolete.” It also rebuilds and reconfigures an access road adjacent to the embanked freeway, resulting in a total of 8 lanes of roadway with a right-of-way width of 214 feet. The agency's designs, which leave waterfront access highly restricted and promote auto-dependent land uses, set the stage for limited reinvestment on the waterfront. Furthermore, maintenance of the bridge is likely to cost more than $50 million over the next two decades.

Citizens and civic organizations, including the Buffalo Common Council, New York State Assemblyman Michael Kearns, and CNU continue to call for the Skyway to come down and the replacement of urban sections of Route 5 through Buffalo with a surface boulevard. In 2013, Commissioner of the New York State Department of Transportation Joan McDonald directed her office to conduct a plausibility review of the route, though the results have yet to be published.

In May of 2016, Congressman Brian Higgins spoke in favor of some sort of alteration to or removal of the Skyway, noting that Buffalo is not the same city it was when it was built in the mid-50s and calling for a full and formal Environmental Impact Statement of the Buffalo Skyway including an assessment of Skyway removal and alternatives. One articulated alternative would be a Buffalo Harbor Bridge, which would cost around $90 million and include pedestrian access, and the decision to demolish the highway would cost around $10 million. It has also been concluded that even the removal of just one ramp that connects the Skyway to I-190, for example, would free up an entire downtown block for development. As it becomes more and more clear that The City of Buffalo can no longer afford to have prime waterfront real-estate continue to sit idle, underutilized and unimproved for another half century, and with the Federal Highway Administration commenting on the only bridge in New York State that will close each year due to inclement weather by classifying the bridge as “functionally obsolete," locals know that it is time to replace a highway that currently divides a community with a roadway that re-connects neighborhoods and helps bring vitality to the area. 

Buffalo Skyway Park
One proposed alteration to the Skyway; New Skyway Park in green and removal of highway in red. Source: twointhebox.com

To keep up on the Skyway's progress, try following the facebook page.

Check out some of these interesting proposals for alternatives to the current highway here.

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